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Disabilities Prevent Aging Africans from Being Productive

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Kim Lewis
Africa’s rapidly aging population is developing disabilities that limit their ability to be productive, according to a study conducted by researchers in the U.S. and Malawi.  It also found that women and men 45 years of age had severe limitations comparable to 80 year olds in the US. 

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania said the findings are significant as older people with functional limitations have difficulty performing work that is required in their agricultural settings.  If not addressed, the economic consequences could be devastating to the income of families whose livelihoods depend on food production. 

Collin Payne, lead researcher  of the study, and graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, explained that the data that was used was based on the Malawi Longitudinal Study of Families and Health.  It’s an ongoing look at rural populations in Malawi conducted by the University of Pennsylvania.

“What we’re measuring are different kinds of inabilities to perform daily life activities in this rural context-- so taking care of livestock, helping out on the farm, these types of activities.  We find that women at age 45 expect to spend about 60 percent of their remaining life unable to do some of these tasks.  For men, the figures are about 40 percent.  And as individuals age older and older, their remaining life that they can do some of these daily activities, it’s shorter and shorter,”  explained Payne.     

While the study did not focus on any particular diseases that would have contributed to the rapid deterioration of physical abilities, Payne said the decline in their health could very well be attributed to a life time of hardship starting at birth.  

“I think in large part, it is due to sort of this overall life-long burden of disability.  From birth to death there’s a lot of exposure to chronic, communicable and non-communicable diseases burdened with some periods of under-nutrition early in the life course. So by the time people are reaching their mid-forties and fifties, they’ve already experienced a lot of pressures on their health, and these are compounded later in the later life,” said Payne.    

As a result, he said, there needs to be a revision of current national health policies and international donor funded health programs.

The lead researcher noted, “I think in large part what could help individual health is a larger focus from individual countries in the region, larger non-governmental organizations, and other policy groups, to expand availability of basic health care services to this population.  It is a very underserved population.  It’s a population that is growing rapidly.  In 2010, the population over 45 years in sub-Saharan Africa was only 10 percent of the population.  U.N. projections say that by 2060 it’s going to be a quarter of the population.”     

Dr. Hans Peter Kohler, another of the researchers of the study, agreed with Payne that most health interventions have focused on communicable diseases such as HIV/AIDS, and other diseases like malaria. 

However, Kohler said their study is significant in that it points out that there should more health care policies that focus on chronic illnesses and disabilities.

“We know from other studies that pain is presumably a very big issue.  And so, what we are arguing here is that these disease patterns and the effect on the economic implications are not very well understood, but they’re very dramatic in the sense about how much they actually limit an individual’s abilities to work and perform day to day tasks,” explained Kohler.       

The researchers of the study agreed that investing in the health of older men and women will also bring about improvements in the quality of their lives but also, boost economic growth for generations to come.

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